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Rubbish, waste, garbage ... Whatever you want to call it, most people do not think about the rubbish they produce or how much of it they produce.
Waste is generally defined as any product or substance that has no further use for the person or organisation that generated it, and which is, or will be, discarded. That is, when the material ceases to have any value and purpose in the hands of its current owner. It thus excludes products or substances that are reused by the organisation that generated them. Waste may be generated during the extraction of raw materials, the processing of those materials to intermediate and final products, and the consumption of final products (1)
Put simply, waste is what people throw away because they no longer need it or want it. It excludes products or substances that are reused or sold by whoever owns them. For practical reasons, the definition covers products discarded by one party but that may have value for another. Thus it can include products that are recyclable. However, what is recyclable in one context might not be recyclable in another, thus resulting in different approaches. For example, in many urban locations the costs and benefits of collecting newspapers favour recycling, but the opposite might be true for a remote location (2)
Almost everything we do creates waste. In Australia, waste generation per person increased from 1.23 tonnes in 1996–97 to 1.62 tonnes in 2002–03 (3). Australia's growth in income and wealth has created a large increase in the disposal of goods no longer needed or wanted, with an associated increase in waste diversity, toxicity and complexity. Governments across Australia and around the world have recognised the environmental effects of current consumption patterns and have, among other policy responses, adopted ambitious targets for reducing waste to landfill or adopted “zero” waste policies.
Wastes may be solid, liquid or gaseous. They can be hazardous or non-hazardous. They may be classified according to their source (municipal, commercial and industrial, construction and demolition) or by composition (organic, paper, glass, metal, and plastic). The physical and chemical properties of waste materials differ based on these and other classifications. Every material has a unique life cycle, from raw material to final disposal, which affects its impact on the environment.
Waste generation and disposal can have significant environmental impacts. These include emissions to air, land and water (including greenhouse emissions) at various stages in the product life cycle from extraction of raw materials to processing, marketing, transport and consumption, as well as direct impacts associated with disposal. Due to a range of market failures, and institutional and regulatory barriers, not all these environmental costs are reflected in market prices. The failure of some markets to get prices right can result in inefficient use of resources, lower economic growth than would otherwise be the case, and adverse environmental and social impacts. Collective action by governments and industry and the community to correct these failures can, if well designed, lead to improved social, environmental and economic outcomes (3).
This article focuses on the non-hazardous solid waste generated by our communities. It also discusses emerging issues like household hazardous waste and electronic waste.
Knowledge of the sources and types of solid wastes, along with data on the composition and rates of generation, is basic to the design and operation of solid waste disposal systems. Although any number of source classifications can be developed, the following categories are useful and are widely adopted throughout Australia:
Municipal waste includes domestic waste and other council waste (e.g. beach, parks and gardens, and street litter bins).
These categories will form the basis of discussion for this feature article.
An outline of the composition of wastes to be considered is as follows:
Differences in the composition of non-hazardous municipal solid waste between different source sectors have implications for the way they are collected, handled, reprocessed and disposed.
The materials in non-hazardous solid waste or municipal solid waste generated by households tend to be fairly consistent across the country.
Numerous surveys have been conducted in the major cities of Australia to understand the composition of this waste which is routinely managed by local councils around Australia. By weight, organic materials originating from food scraps and garden waste make up the largest component of household waste. Newspapers and other fibres make up the second highest proportion.
What drives waste generation?
Growth in the amount of waste generated per capita in Australia has been driven by a number of economic, demographic and geographic factors. A consequence of Australia's fast growing, materially intensive economy is the production of large quantities of waste.3 Growth in waste generation appears to be positively related to growth in household incomes and corporate earnings. Studies show that amount of waste generated often increases along with gross domestic product (GDP).
Some of the growth in waste generation, especially in per person terms, has been driven by changes in population demographics. Australians are tending to live in smaller household groups, with the average household size shrinking by 14% over the 20 years to 2001 (4). As well, homes are becoming more luxurious with the ownership of more durable goods per person and an increase in the consumption of smaller-serve goods (which have higher packaging-to-product ratios than larger-serve goods) (3).
Similarly, the increasing dispersal of settlement (urban sprawl) and changes in lifestyle may also contribute to an increase in per person waste generation. Increased distances between home and work (and rising incomes) may decrease the amount of time spent on domestic tasks, such as cooking and cleaning and increase the purchase of prepackaged food and time-saving devices, such as washing machines and dishwashers (2).
The Australian population is ageing which changes consumption patterns, influencing the quantity and quality of resources used and waste generated. For example, expenditure on personal travel and health is increasing in Australia, as is the purchase of second homes.
In general, the data show increasing waste generation per person, a decline in waste to landfill and a significant increase in recycling.
Rate of waste generation
Both government and non-government organisations frequently describe Australia as a high producer of waste when compared with other countries (5). Despite
Australia's lack of comprehensive reliable waste information, this would seem to be the case.
Australians generated approximately 32.4 million tonnes of solid waste or approximately 1,629 kilograms of waste per person in 2002–03. Of this amount, approximately 27% of Australia's solid waste came from municipal sources, 29% from the commercial and industrial sector, and 42% from the construction and demolition sector (2).
Of the total non-hazardous solid waste generated in Australia in 2002–03 (32.4 million tonnes), approximately 54% was disposed to landfill (17.4 million tonnes) and the remainder (46%) was recycled (about 15 million tonnes) (3). The level of total waste generation (disposal and recycling) and diversion rate is also supplied for the states and territories.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reports Australia as a high producer of municipal waste of the OECD countries (6).
More recently, the 2004 Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Waste Management Services survey found that approximately 18 million tonnes of waste was landfilled in 2002–03, though information for Tasmania and Northern Territory could not be included in this figure (7)
While there are no national data on recycling, it is generally assumed that the majority of waste generated is disposed to landfill (1,5).
In 2002–03, approximately 30% of Australia's municipal waste was recycled (2,701,000 tonnes), and the remainder was landfilled (6,202,000 tonnes). Australian municipal recycling is comparable to the average recycling rate in Europe (36.4%).
Australian governments have relied on persuasion to achieve this level of recycling, subsidising collection services and introducing waste disposal levies to encourage the recycling of materials, particularly from the household waste stream. Recycling in Europe is achieved mainly through legislature. As well, Australia’s geography/population distribution is very different compared to European countries (Australia is a big country with few people).
Time series data are patchy across Australia but suggest that overall waste generation is growing over time, the quantity of waste disposed to landfill remains steady, and there has been a large increase in recycling.
WHERE DOES OUR WASTE GO?
Solid waste can be managed in many different ways. How it is managed – whether it is landfilled, incinerated, recycled, composted or exported – will depend on the source and the type of waste involved and the financial viability of the different management methods and policies. It will also depend who is providing the service (waste management firms or local government bodies or on-site by the waste generator), the type and capacity of waste facilities, government policies, legislation and other factors such as rural versus urban.
Elements of a solid waste management system
There are many phases, some interlinking, in any solid waste management system:
The waste hierarchy
Since the early 1990s, the management of waste has been guided by a hierarchical approach. This approach is one of a waste information tool rather than a government policy. In fact, the Productivity Commission considers that this approach is inconsistent with good policy principles as it suggests that one approach is better than another, irrespective of all of the costs and benefits to the community (2).
A number of jurisdictions around Australia have adopted the hierarchy approach to waste management. In many cases the approach has been established under waste avoidance and recovery acts and is central to the National Waste Minimisation and Recycling Strategy.
In order of preference, the hierarchical approach seeks to consider waste management options against the following priorities:
including action to reduce the amount of waste generated by households, industry and all levels of government.
including reuse, reprocessing, recycling and energy recovery, consistent with the most efficient use of the recovered resources.
including management of all disposal options in the most environmentally responsible manner.
Avoidance, the highest priority, encourages the community to reduce the amount of waste it generates and to be more efficient in its use of resources. This is a key factor in many waste management strategies. The aim is to make automatic disposal simpler by reducing the amount of waste generated in the first place and reducing the presence of dangerous substances in products. Waste avoidance is closely linked with improving manufacturing methods and influencing consumers to demand greener products and less packaging.
Resource recovery aims to maximise options for reuse, reprocessing, recycling and energy recovery to encourage the efficient use of recovered resources while supporting the principles of improved environmental outcomes and ecologically sustainable development. Resource recovery can also embrace new and emerging technologies.
Disposal aims to manage disposal in an environmentally responsible manner. It includes waste treatment to reduce hazard or nuisance waste preferably at the site of generation.
This article will focus on two waste management options – resource recovery and disposal.
The 3Rs plus 1
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Recover energy:
Australia has a strong dependence on landfill for waste management with more than 17 million tonnes deposited in 2002–03. Of this, 70% of municipal waste, 56% of commercial and industrial waste, and 43% of construction and demolition waste went to landfill. This equates to approximately 6.2 million tonnes, 5.3 million tonnes, and 5.9 million tonnes respectively. The overall landfill disposal rate is estimated to be 54% (2).
Impacts of landfill
Landfills have low operating costs compared to waste reprocessing systems, and traditionally have been located relatively close to the urban centres they serve. While some landfills have been in use for decades, such older facilities especially those in areas becoming more heavily populated, are gradually being replaced with modern ones. Vastly different from old-style dumps, landfills are designed to control leachate and gas emissions. Most importantly, they are sited carefully with regard to the natural conditions of the area. Landfill siting must take into account soil conditions, hydrology and topography, climate, local environmental issues, hauling distances, land use and other issues.
While most metropolitan population centres are not short of potential landfill sites, securing community and political acceptance for the use of these sites remains very difficult, notwithstanding tight regulatory regimes.
The real or perceived social disadvantages of landfills (and other waste management facilities such as transfer stations and material recovery facilities) – traffic, noise, dust, odours and leachate – are the basis of strong community opposition. Balancing conflicting considerations may be difficult. While one area may provide an ideal landfill location from a geological point of view, public concerns over land use and other impacts may make the selected area unsuitable. These factors increase the need to maximise the use of landfill space in already approved, best practice facilities.
However, some landfills still have significant environmental impacts and may continue to affect the environment long after they have been retired. Problems arising from landfill may depend upon the nature of landfill controls, the site and the materials disposed. High density, inert materials are likely to be least costly to manage and cause fewer environmental impacts, followed by less dense and biodegradable materials, with hazardous household waste likely to cause the greatest impacts.
The principal environmental concerns associated with modern landfills are emissions of greenhouse gases, particularly methane (landfill gas) and the possible long-term leakage into the environment through leachate of heavy metals, household chemicals, consumer electronic products and earlier generation rechargeable batteries, such as ni-cads. Some of these materials are persistent and can become concentrated at higher levels in food chains.
Other environmental consequences of landfill include energy use in transporting waste, noise and odours impacting local amenity, as well as air emissions and amenity impacts through the transportation of wastes to landfill.
Leachate, a mixture of water and dissolved solids, is produced as water passes through waste and collects at the bottom of the landfill. While the exact composition of the leachate depends on the type of waste and its stage of decomposition, leachate may contain a variety of toxic and polluting components, in large or trace amounts. If managed inappropriately, leachate can contaminate ground and surface water.
While most modern urban landfills are lined with impervious membrane layers, the quality of leachate collection and treatment systems varies and a small percentage may escape and pose an environmental risk. Unlined rural landfills may result in the migration of leachate either into surface or ground water. There is a particular concern in rural areas over the illegal disposal of pesticide containers to landfill. These can pose a significant threat to surface and ground water.
Biodegrading waste in landfills produces landfill gas, a mixture of carbon dioxide and methane, small amounts of nitrogen and oxygen, and trace amounts of a wide range of other gases such as benzene, toluene, and vinyl chloride. Some components of landfill gas may be toxic or explosive. The components can include ammonia, hydrogen sulphide and other organo-sulphur compounds, which produce the characteristic bad odour associated with landfills. Landfill gas generation depends on the waste composition – the more organic waste present, the more gas is produced by bacterial decomposition. Other factors such as temperature, moisture content, and the age of the waste also affect gas production. The waste degradation process occurs slowly and methane emissions continue long after waste is disposed to landfill. Estimates in any year include a large component of emissions resulting from waste disposal over the preceding 30 years.
Landfill gas is a greenhouse gas. The National Greenhouse Gas Inventory estimates that methane emissions from solid waste disposal on land were 15.0 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2-e) or 2.7% of net national emissions in 2004 (8).
Landfill gas recovery
While most landfills have a gas capture system, not all of the methane is captured. It is estimated that about 55% of the gas can be captured and of the 45% which is not captured 10% escapes through the landfill cap over its total life cycle. In some cases, landfill gas is flared to reduce odour and convert methane into carbon dioxide, a less potent greenhouse gas. In other cases, landfill gases are collected and can be used as a substitute fuel or to generate electricity. Between 1990 and 2003, the proportion of methane generated in Australia's landfills that were captured for fuel or electricity generation grew from almost zero to approximately 24%. Up to 75% of landfills servicing major urban areas and capital cities use gas capture technologies (2)
Growth in landfill gas capture has occurred for a variety of reasons. These include government incentives and regulatory requirements promoting the generation of electricity from renewable resources, and attempts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from landfills. Most of the methane captured from Australian landfills is used for electricity generation, although it does not contribute significantly to Australia's total energy generation. In 2005, there were 402 renewable energy generators in operation in Australia, with a total generating capacity of 9,082 megawatts. Of these, only 37 were landfill gas projects, with a total generating capacity of 105 megawatts. To put this figure in perspective, in 2003–04 less than 5% of Australia's total energy consumption came from renewable resources (2).
Environmental monitoring of landfills is important, both while they are operating and after they have closed. Closed landfills are covered to prevent water entry, limit the migration of landfill gases, and to prevent the growth of disease-spreading organisms.
Landfills are an important component of a waste management system. Other methods of dealing with waste, such as incineration and recycling, produce their own wastes which end up in landfills.
Recycling involves the collection, separation and processing of materials for manufacture into raw materials or new products. Recyclable materials must be collected and sorted before being sold. Contaminating recyclable materials reduces the quality of the material.
Councils throughout Australia obtain waste for recycling by collections at recycling centres, separate kerbside collection of recyclable materials, or separating waste after collection. The disparity in recycling between rural and urban areas is largely due to the implementation of kerbside recycling schemes which are more expensive to introduce and maintain in rural areas. The reduction, reuse and recovery of household waste are key sustainable development objectives.
The amount of material recycled fluctuates from year to year. It is affected by changing economic factors such as growth in income and consumption, as well as the price of raw materials and recyclables. Changes in recycling programs, industry commitment and public awareness may also affect the amount of material recycled. Recyclable materials are collected from households via kerbside collections, public recycling bins, or are delivered directly by the household to recycling depots. Large producers of waste in the commercial and industrial and construction and demolition sectors normally arrange for the private collection and delivery of recyclable materials to be reprocessed.
Recycling is not just putting materials in a recycling bin at the kerbside: collection is only the start of the process. Markets must exist for recyclable materials and buyers must be found for products made with recyclable materials.
The materials collected are generally reprocessed by specialist recyclers. A range of materials including paper, glass, metals and plastics, are separated, cleaned and reprocessed for use as material inputs in the production of new items. Other items such as food, garden waste and other putrescible wastes are separated and converted, usually through some form of composting, into nutrients for parks, gardens and agriculture.
Recycling in Australia
Recycling in Australia has grown over the past 20 years to the point where it is a widely accepted part of waste management services. It is estimated that recycling in 2002–03 accounted for 30% of municipal waste generated (2.7 million tonnes), 44% of commercial and industrial waste generated (4.2 million tonnes) and 57% of construction and demolition waste generated (7.8 million tonnes). Waste recovered for recycling in 2002–03 was approximately 15 million tonnes, almost half of the total generated in that year (3).
Overall, the recycling rate is estimated to be 46% which represents the amount that has been reprocessed into a usable production input and not just the amount collected for recycling. Reporting the amount of material collected would inflate estimates of total recycling. The amount of waste recovered for recycling in Australia has increased both in absolute terms and as a proportion of total waste generated. For example, in the ACT in 1993–94, about 22% of the total waste generated was recovered for recycling. In 2002–03, this had risen to 69% (9).
RECYCLING RATE, ACT
Source: ACT NoWaste.
Some materials are recycled more than others. Data are generally collected on a material basis (e.g. plastic, glass, concrete), and there are limited national and state data available on the consumption and recycling of products. An estimate of the diversion rate of 50 significant products identifies (3):
By weight, concrete is by far the most recycled material. In 2002–03, 2.4 million tonnes of concrete (and brick, rubble and earth) was recycled in New South Wales. This was more than twice the amount of ferrous metal recycled (1.0 million tonnes), and approximately three times the amount of paper and cardboard (0.8 million tonnes), and food and garden waste (0.9 million tonnes) (3).
The majority of recycled concrete came from the construction and demolition sector. In comparison, most recycled metal came from the commercial and industrial sector; most recycled paper came from the commercial and industrial, and municipal sectors; and most recycled food and garden waste was sourced from the municipal sector.
However, in percentage terms, metals had the highest recycling rate (82% of total metal waste generated), followed by concrete (74%), paper (55%) and
glass (38%) (3).
An alternative destination for waste is thermal treatment (including incineration, pyrolysis and gasification) either with or without energy recovery.
Incineration includes a wide range of practices, from low-tech open burning – which emits pollutants directly into the air – to controlled combustion processes using mass burn systems, refuse-derived fuel (RDF) systems and other types of modern incinerators using pollution control devices.
There are currently no large-scale thermal treatment facilities for the disposal of non-hazardous municipal solid waste in Australia. Historically, Australians incinerated a great deal of their waste, often with the use of backyard incinerators and the open burning at landfills. However, these practices have declined since the 1970s due to concern for their impact on health and the environment, and the increasing stringency of air quality regulations.
For example, the Waverley-Woollahra municipal waste incinerator at Zetland in Sydney was shut down in 1997, ending its emissions of dioxins and furans. The News South Wales Environment Protection Authority (EPA) undertook comprehensive studies of the emissions from the incinerator over several years and negotiated a program to upgrade the facility with the operator. The timetable for upgrading was not met and the EPA revoked the licence for the facility to process waste. An objection by the operator to the revocation was dismissed in the Land and Environment Court, resulting in closure of the incinerator.
Although new technologies have been developed, modern incinerators, fitted with pollution abatement equipment, require high capital investment. Although less frequently used in Australia, incineration continues to be used in many jurisdictions for the disposal of hazardous substances such as clinical, biomedical and other toxic waste, that are often too dangerous to dispose of in other ways. However, incineration is a common waste management practice in some European and Asian countries, where space for landfill is at a premium.
Composting is a process whereby organic wastes are decomposed by microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi, as well as by worms and insects. Microorgansims eat the carbon and nitrogen in organic waste materials. As waste is digested, heat is produced helping to kill the pathogens. The final product is a stable humus or compost, which can be used for landscaping, gardening or other purposes.
Organic waste including kitchen waste, garden waste, agricultural waste, biosolids and other types of waste can all be composted using different methods.
Composting in Australia
Centralised composting facilities have become more common around the world since the early 1990s. Some businesses and other organisations in the industrial, commercial sectors use on-site composting facilities.
Australia sends over 21 million tonnes of solid waste to landfill annually. Over 40%, (8.4 million tonnes) is composed of putrescible organic material including green organic and food waste.
An assessment of the organics and recycling industry found that there is a range of impediments restraining the industry from developing to the point where it is able to deal effectively with organic waste at the national level (10). These impediments are:
Impacts of composting
Composting offers several benefits:
However, composting must be managed properly so as not to cause excessive odours or attract pests. If compost piles are allowed to become too wet or are infrequently turned, anaerobic digestion may take over, generating odour as well as methane. Large scale composting facilities need to take into account leachate production and run-off to ensure that contaminants do not enter groundwater or surface water.
High quality finished compost is used in agriculture, horticulture, forestry, landscaping and home gardening. The quality of finished compost depends on several factors including the maturity, organic matter content, pH and the presence of contaminants.
The horticulture industry is an intensive user of energy and materials, producing significant levels of waste. It exerts pressure on the environment through water usage, fertilisers and pesticides. The use of recycled organic material in the horticulture industry has the potential to reduce industry reliance on environmentally harmful inputs.
Modern agricultural techniques in Australia have depleted organic carbon levels in soil from an estimated 3% to less than 1% (10). Organic carbon in the soil enables soil biota to flourish, assisting the processes of nutrient flow, cation exchange, and water and nutrient retention. Agronomists suggest that soils become markedly less stable when carbon is reduced to current levels, contributing to soil erosion, salinity and high levels of sodium. The problem of carbon depletion is worse in soils subject to intensive agriculture and horticulture.
Over four million tonnes of organic carbon could be made available for soil improvement in agriculture annually from recycled organic material. Returning this material to agricultural soils could significantly improve them by initiating a cycle of carbon regeneration in soils to maintain stability and enhance productivity such that there would be a net reduction in greenhouse emissions as a result.
Applied recycled organic material can result in water savings in excess of 25%, reduced chemical and fertiliser inputs, reduced run-off and consequent soil erosion and waterway pollution, and increased plant vitality.
Organic waste is of low density, can take up double the volume of landfill as other waste, and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. Removing this material from the waste stream could reduce Australia's emissions by around 3% by diverting organic material from the waste stream (10).
CURRENT AND EMERGING WASTE ISSUES
Household hazardous waste – the hazards of modern living
Leftover household products that contain corrosive, toxic, ignitable, or reactive ingredients are considered to be "household hazardous waste" or "HHW". The following products all contain potentially hazardous ingredients requiring special care when you dispose of them:
Improper disposal of HHW can include pouring them down the drain, on the ground, into storm sewers, or in some cases putting them out with the rubbish. The dangers of such disposal methods might not be immediately obvious, but improper disposal of these wastes can pollute the environment and pose a threat to human health. Most councils throughout Australia offer a variety of options for conveniently and safely managing HHW.
This article does not consider other waste streams that predominantly contain particular types of hazardous solid waste including:
Australians are some of the highest users of new technology in the world. In Australia we have seen rapid uptake of new technology, from VCRs to personal organisers to DVD players. Australia is currently one of the top ten countries using information and communication technology, ranking tenth in the world for spending per capita and fifth in the world for spending as a percentage of gross domestic product (11).
However, with the constant drive to have the newest and latest products comes the inevitable wastage of the “old” products they supersede. Obsolete electronic goods, or “e-waste” is one of the fastest growing waste types and the problem of e-waste is global. E-waste is a popular, informal name for electronic products nearing the end of their “useful life”. Computers, televisions, VCRs, stereos, photocopiers and fax machines are common electronic products. Many of the materials in these products can be reused and recycled and some items can be refurbished for a second life.
Each year we buy over 2.4 million PCs and more than 1 million televisions (12). As we become more dependent on electronic products to make life more convenient, the stockpile of used, obsolete products grows. It is estimated that there are currently around nine million computers, five million printers and two million scanners in households and businesses across Australia, and all of these will be replaced, most within the next couple of years (13). E-waste in Australia is growing at over three times the rate of general municipal waste (14).
Very little of the increasing amount of electrical and electronic equipment being used in Australia is being recycled, with most of it ending up in landfill, representing a loss of non-renewable resources. Australian governments have been working with the electrical and electronic equipment industry to facilitate the establishment by industry of product stewardship schemes to collect and recycle used equipment.
While e-waste is generated from a variety of sources, such as commercial premises, government offices and educational facilities, e-waste from households is a particular concern due to a lack of knowledge on the amounts held or current household disposal behaviour.
The only survey that provides recent data on e-waste was conducted through the Department of Environment and Conservation (NSW), Sustainability Victoria, Environmental Protection Agency (Qld), Zero Waste (SA), Department of Environment (WA), ACT No Waste, and Product Stewardship Australia Ltd. The survey sought to establish baseline information about e-waste by surveying metropolitan households in Australia.
The survey covered most consumer electrical and electronic equipment types, except whitegoods. This included televisions, videos/DVDs, radios, stereos and cassette players, portable equipment (walkmans, MP3 players, etc), computer monitors and hard drives as well as a range of miscellaneous computer-related items, laptops and cordless equipment (power tools, telephones, toothbrushes, shavers, digital cameras, toys, etc) (15).
The survey found across all equipment types and all locations surveyed, an estimated 92.5 million items are held in households – representing an average of 22 items per household. People have a large amount of electrical and electronic equipment in their homes.
Where do all the mobile phones go?
A few years ago the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association (AMTA) started a mobile phone and battery recycling program – MobileMuster. Mobile phone owners upgrade every 18 months on average and so, with this in mind, AMTA has been collecting disused handsets to be broken down into their re-usable parts. Hundreds of thousands of mobile phones have been recycled, recovering gold, silver, nickel, copper, steel and plastics which can be extracted and turned into jewellery, power tool products, low-grade stainless steel items and fenceposts. It may take an estimated 50,000 mobile phones to produce one kilogram of gold.
Under MobileMuster, the phones are collected and separated into parts and the chargers and power supply units are recycled in Australia. Circuit boards are sent to North America or South Korea for metal extraction while batteries are sent to France for recycling (16).
The program runs at a net cost to the telecommunications industry and is now a role model for both mobile phone recycling programs overseas and for recycling for other types of electronic waste.
Computers and IT equipment
So just what do you do with a computer that you no longer need? Give it away? Trash it? Recycle it?
It has been estimated that in 2006 there will be around 1.6 million computers disposed of in landfill, 1.8 million put in storage (in addition to the 5.3 million already gathering dust in garages and other storage areas and 0.5 million recycled in Australia alone) (11).
There are also a number of community computer reuse projects in Australia which facilitate the movement of redundant computers from businesses to the community. Computers are typically donated to schools, charities and households or for export to developing countries. If the computer is not of a standard accepted for reuse, refurbishers may take it to reuse the parts.
Upgrading of a particular appliance can also extend the life span of electronic equipment, if the design allows. It is quite standard practice to fit larger hard disks or additional memory to computers. Computer manufacturers now design products that can be easily upgraded, enabling many of the original parts to be retained virtually indefinitely, or at least until they are beyond repair.
Why recycle or e-cycle?
Some electronic products include hazardous substances that can pose a risk to the environment if they are sent to landfill. Computer monitors and older television picture tubes contain an average of two kilograms of lead and require special handling at the end of their lives. In addition to lead, electronics can contain chromium, cadmium, mercury, beryllium, nickel, zinc, and brominated flame retardants. When electronics are not disposed of, or recycled properly, these toxic materials can present problems.
Extending the life of electronic products or donating the most up-to-date and working electronics can save money and valuable resources. Safely recycling or e-cycling, i.e. the reusing or recycling of outdated consumer electronics can promote the safe management of hazardous components and supports the recovery and reuse of valuable materials.
“Not in my backyard” – exporting the e-waste problem
Electronic scrap comes from various sources, but two of the more important are from auction houses and Information Technology lease firms, where old equipment with no re-sale value in Australia is sold to exporters in consignments to clear it from their premises. Some computing recycling companies also export old computers or parts (e.g. circuit boards) for further recycling overseas.
Historically very large volumes of electronic scrap have been exported from developed countries (including Australia) to developing countries including China, the Philippines, Thailand and India. In these countries labour is cheap, and occupational health and safety (OHS) and environmental standards are often low.
Trafficking of hazardous waste led to the drafting and adoption of the Basel Convention under the United Nations Environment Programme. The Basel Convention, a legally binding international agreement, was developed to address the problem of the uncontrolled movement and dumping of hazardous wastes across international boundaries, particularly to developing nations.
Australia ratified the Basel Convention in 1992, and now hazardous wastes can only be exported from Australia with a permit, granted only where it can be shown that the wastes will be managed in an environmentally sound manner in the country of import. Under the Hazardous Waste Act, exporting hazardous waste without a permit is an offence (11).
The Basel convention has been ratified by 168 countries, ensuring a level of international cooperation that may limit the growth of Guiyu-style recycling centres. Guiyu, a town in China, is a booming e-waste processing centre which has serious environmental hazards.
Plastic bag usage
The plastic carry bag is an established part of Australian shopping. In Australia, two main types of plastic bags are used in the retail sector: the “boutique” style bag made of low density polyethylene (LDPE); and the “singlet” type bag made of high density polyethylene (HDPE).
The LDPE boutique style bags are generally branded and are used by stores selling higher value goods, such as department stores, clothing and shoe outlets.
The HDPE singlet bag is usually a non-branded bag, used mainly in supermarkets, take-away food and fresh produce outlets, but also in smaller retail outlets such as service stations and newsagents. Carry bags made from HDPE are lightweight and strong, with a carrying capacity of over 1,000 times the weight of the bag. The weight of HDPE bags varies between 2 and 8 grams, with an average supermarket bag weighing 5–7 grams (17). It was estimated in 2002 that HDPE bags accounted for more than 85% of total plastic carry bags by number (17).
Approximately 53% of plastic bags are distributed from supermarket outlets, while the remainder come from other retail outlets such as fast food shops, liquor stores, and general merchandising (18).
In 2002, approximately 7 million new bags were used by consumers, or just under one bag per person per day. This equates to approximately 2% (or over 36,850 tonnes) of total plastics consumed in Australia each year. Around 6 billion of these are HDPE bags and 900 million are LDPE bags (17).
What's wrong with plastic bags?
Current plastic bag use and disposal, both by consumers and through waste management activities, create environmental problems for a variety of reasons.18 These include:
Studies show that plastic bags are numerically around 2% of the litter stream at most surveyed sites. Plastic bags are more noticeable in the litter stream because of their size, and because they accumulate as they take hundreds of years to break down.
Plastic bag litter appears as a result of both inadvertent and intentional littering behaviour. Inadvertent litter is usually associated with windblown litter from disposal routes such as litter bins and landfill sites. Intentional litter results from inappropriate disposal actions by consumers.
What is being done?
Australian Environment Ministers, recognising the community’s concern and the national significance of plastic bag litter, established an expert working group to provide a range of options for the National Packaging Covenant Council and governments for reducing the environmental impact of plastic carry bags.
The National Packaging Covenant Council has been the leading instrument for managing the environmental impacts of consumer packing in Australia since 1999.
A broad range of initiatives were subsequently set by the Environment Protection and Heritage Council (EPHC) in 2003, including:
As voluntary targets were not met in 2005, Ministers have also agreed to explore mandatory options for phasing out lightweight plastic bags by the end of 2008.
There is clear evidence from bag import data and Australian bag manufacturers that there has been a reduction in bag usage in Australia between 2002 and 2004, which has continued into 2005. At the end of 2005, overall plastic bag consumption had reduced by 34% to 3.9 billion (17).
The reduction in the supermarket sector is estimated to be higher than other retail sectors reflecting a higher level of activity by companies and community organisation in these stores. The 2002–2005 reduction in the supermarket sector is 45%.
The reduction across the rest of the retail industry is lower at 34%, although there will be exceptions. (For example where retailers have introduced a charge for bags and the observed reduction has been much greater, typically more than 80%). The reduction in LDPE shopping bags has been more significant in 2005, with imports dropping an estimated 68% from 2002 import levels.
Industry observations are that the reductions in bag use over the past two years are the result of increased consumer awareness, better staff training and the more widespread availability and use of heavier duty reusable carry bags (“green bags”).
Plastic Bag facts (19)
Oil is a valuable resource. Cars, trucks, farm machines, and boats all need regular lubricating oil changes. Each year, more than 500 million litres of lubricating oil is sold in Australia.20 While some engines, such as two-stroke lawn mower engines burn oil completely, others like motor vehicle engines and machinery produce large volumes of used oil that can be reclaimed and reused.
About 280–300 million litres of used oil is generated by industry and the community and is available for recycling. Supported by the Australian Government's Product Stewardship for Oil Program, Australians recycled approximately 220 million litres of their used oil in 2004–05. Even though this rate is high between 60 and 100 million litres of used oil remains unaccounted for (20).
“Missing oil” could be:
The improper use of used oil can pollute land, waterways, underground reservoirs and the marine environment. One litre of used oil can contaminate up to one million litres of water.
Used oil, or “sump oil” as it is sometimes called, can be re-used. Although it gets dirty, used oil can still be cleaned and re-used. In fact, recycled used oil can be used as an industrial burner fuel, hydraulic oil, incorporated into other products or re-refined back into new lubricating oil. Used oil is hazardous –and harmful to the environment when irresponsibly discarded and can present a fire hazard if not properly stored.
When automotive tyres inevitably wear out, they are no longer safe for use on the vehicle for which they were intended, and must be replaced. It is estimated that around 29 million waste tyres a year (measured in equivalent passenger vehicle units) or 230,000 tonnes of material are generated in Australia each year (21). Most of these tyres are left by the motorist with tyre dealers or retailers, who replace them with new or retreaded tyres. This process means that waste tyres are generated over a wide geographic area. Together with their inherent weight and bulk, this makes them difficult to sort, collect, transport, store and finally dispose of, or to recycle. It is also difficult to determine exactly where these tyres end up, or determine the extent to which proper disposal or recycling of waste tyres occurs. It would seem that disposal to landfill is still the most common end for waste tyres in Australia with about 60% disposed to landfill, 30% of tyres recycled and an estimated 10% dumped or abandoned illegally on private property or public land (21).
The costs to the community and local and state/territory governments through the littering of our landscapes and waterways and the taking up of scarce landfill space, are quite large. The cost of landfill disposal can be as low as $20 per tonne or $0.20 per waste tyre (equivalent passenger unit) in non-urban municipal landfill centres and as high as $180 per tonne in urban landfill centres (albeit the vast majority of tyres that are disposed to landfill incur a cost of less than $50 per tonne). The availability of low cost landfill disposal is a positive disincentive to recycling (21).
Currently there are about 4,000 tyre retailers in Australia, about 30 licensed and operating tyre disposal organisations and less than 10 recyclers. These are the organisations that face and deliver the primary economic alternatives of recycling versus landfill disposal. Tyre retailers simply make the decision to call for legal disposal from the 30 licensed collectors. The licensed collectors make the decision on how best to minimise their cost of disposal and/or delivery to a recycler (21).
Tyres going to landfill or being dumped are potentially a valuable resource with various reuse, recycling and waste to energy options. Resource recovery can serve to minimise resource depletion and particularly non-renewable resource recovery. Rubber tyres are principally comprised of petroleum extract materials. Resource recovery applications range from civil engineering to sports, leisure, playground and road surfacing, industrial adhesives and blending with virgin materials.
Apart from costs to the community and local and state/territory governments through littering and taking up scarce landfill space, waste tyres are a source of health and environmental concerns. Fires in stockpiles can release toxic gases and pollute waterways and tyre stockpiles provide breeding habitats for mosquitoes.
Projections of future disposal and recycling quantities have been calculated for 2012–13 and 2022–23. The increases are based on an average annual per capita GDP growth of 1.88% and an average annual population growth of 1.13%. The projections assume that no changes in the proportion of materials recovered will occur (3).
It is likely that the trend of the past 10 years where recycling activity has expanded will continue. Many kerbside recycling systems are now at a mature level and large gains are unlikely. Similarly the prospect for further major gains in metals, concrete and cardboard recycling is limited. On the other hand there is likely to be significant expansion of commercial and industrial recycling and large gains in construction and demolition recycling markets in some states.
1. Productivity Commission, December 2005, Waste Generation and Resource Efficiency, Issues Paper.
2. Productivity Commission, May 2006, Waste Management, Draft Report.
3. Department of the Environment and Heritage, February 2006, Submission to the Productivity Commission Inquiry into Waste Generation and Resource Efficiency.
4. Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2004, Measures of Australia’s progress, cat. no. 1370.0, Canberra.
5. Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2005, Yearbook Australia 2005, cat. no. 1310.1, Canberra.
6. Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development 2004, Environmental data compendium, Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, Paris.
7. Australian Bureau of Statistics 2004, Waste management service survey 2002–03, cat. no. 8698.0, Canberra.
8. Australian Greenhouse Office 2006, National Greenhouse Gas Inventory 2004.
9. ACT NoWaste. No Waste by 2010. Turning waste into resources, 2003 Progress report and second-hand Sunday.
10. Department of the Environment and Heritage, Organics and horticulture, http://deh.gov.au, last viewed13 September 2006.
11. Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, Advancing Australia – Highlights of the Information Economy Progress Report 2002, http://www.dcita.gov.au, last viewed 19 October 2006.
12. Ecorecycle Victoria 2005, E-waste Fact Sheet, http://www.ecorecycle.sustainability.vic.gov.au/, last viewed 31 March 2006.
13. Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2004, Electronic Scrap – A hazardous waste, http://www.deh.gov.au/settlements/publications/chemicals/hazardous-waste/electronic-scrap-fs.html, last viewed 29 March 2006.
14. Kyocera Australia, 2004, e-Waste, http://www.kyoceramita.com.au/e-Waste.asp, last viewed 11 April 2006.
15. Ipsos, 2005. Prepared for Department of Environment and Conservation (NSW), Household Electrical and Electronic Waste Survey 2005, http://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/resources/spd060220_ewaste_ipsosreport.pdf, last viewed 11 April 2006.
16. Mobile Muster 2006, Official recycling program of the mobile phone industry, http://www.mobilemuster.com.au, last viewed 14 September, 2006.
17. Hyder Consulting 2006, Department of the Environment and Heritage, Plastic Retail Carry Bag Use 2002–2005 Consumption, 2005 End of year report.
18. (EPHC) Environment Protection and Heritage Council, 2002. Plastic shopping bags in Australia. National Plastic Bags Working Group, Report to the National Packing Covenant Council.
19. Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2005, Plastic bag facts, http://www.deh.gov.au/settlements/waste/plastic-bags/facts.html, last viewed 27 March 2006.
20. Department of the Environment and Heritage 2006, Recycling your oil, http://www.oilrecycling.gov.au, last viewed 14 September, 2006.
21. Australian Tyre Recyclers Association 2006, ATRA Response to Productivity Commission Issues Paper on Waste Generation and Resource Efficiency.